Counseling vs. Psychotherapy: Choosing the Right Path

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Counselor comforting client

Many people use the titles of ‘counselor’ and ‘psychotherapist’ interchangeably. This is understandable, especially for the layman, considering there are a lot of similarities between the two professions and the services each provides. But there are also some key differences between counseling vs. psychotherapy, and though those distinctions might not affect patients, they will certainly make a difference in your career trajectory and the choices you make when setting and pursuing your professional goals.

What Are the Duties and Responsibilities of Each Profession?

Counselors are professionals who use talk therapy to help a variety of clients. There are many different types of counselors: substance abuse, behavioral, family, school, child, adult individual and marriage counselors are a few of the most common. While a counselor may specialize, many see a variety of patients. Some see children, while others focus on adults or married couples.

Counselors often ask their clients questions to encourage openness and forthrightness regarding current problems they are experiencing. Counselors identify problems in relationships, behaviors or other aspects of a client’s life and help them find a solution or coping mechanism. Counselors guide clients through talking about their issues, often encouraging patients to discover their own answers to problems and helping them decide what are the best actions to improve their situation.

Psychotherapists also forge a healing relationship with patients, though psychotherapy — which is sometimes simply referred to as “therapy” — is often a longer-term endeavor. Some people visit a therapist, either consistently or intermittently, for years.

When considering a career in counseling vs. psychotherapy, it’s important to consider the approach you’re more comfortable applying. While counselors talk with their clients mostly about current problems, psychotherapists often consider a bigger picture including a patient’s overall behavioral patterns, chronic physical or mental health issues, and relationship patterns.

Psychotherapy requires both the practitioner and the client to be open to exploring the client’s past and its impact on the current situation. Psychotherapists help patients explore patterns in behavior and feelings to understand how they have lasting and immediate effects on the present. Psychotherapy involves exploring the past and addressing unresolved problems to create a healthier future.

Earning Potential for Counselors vs. Psychotherapists

Because both the counseling and psychotherapy professions have many different specialties, there is a wide range of earning potential within each.

For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a substance abuse, behavioral disorder or another mental health counselor in 2016 earned a median income of approximately $42,000 per year. The top 10 percent of highest-earning counselors made more than $70,100.

The BLS looked deeper into this profession, outlining a few specialties and their earning potential. Counselors who worked in government earned a median income of $50,840 while those in state, local and private hospitals earned around $46,000. Counselors employed by nursing and residential care facilities earned the least, according to the BLS, with a median income of almost $37,000.

Compensation levels for psychotherapists were similar to those of counselors, according to 2016 BLS reports. Median earners as of May 2016 who focused on marriage and family therapy earned approximately $49,000 annually. That said, the highest-paid 10 percent of marriage and family therapists earned more than $81,960.

Psychotherapists also have the opportunity to work in outpatient care centers and the offices of health care practitioners, where they may earn a median income of around $48,000. Those providing individual and family services earned approximately $44,500 as of 2016, according to the BLS.

Key Similarities and Differences Between Counseling vs. Psychotherapy

Psychologists and counselors are both health care providers who assess the behavior of patients and determine their level of well-being. Both types of professionals work with myriad types of clients — groups and individuals as well as children and adults. Counselors and psychologists are tasked with learning how their patients think, understanding their behaviors, and helping them create more positive futures for themselves and their loved ones.

Though the duties of psychologists and counselors are similar, they’re not exactly alike. In some states, such as California, therapists are required to hold a specific license to practice.

Counselors, on the other hand, don’t always need to meet the same requirement. This can sometimes mean that therapists require more education to practice than do counselors, though this is not always the case. Psychotherapists, especially those who have earned an advanced degree, may also have a wider variety of tools to access in helping their patients. While counselors mostly use talk therapy, psychotherapists sometimes use other methods in their practice, such as accessing memories, employing behavioral therapy and other cognitive-based techniques.

Learn More:

The Master of Counseling degree program at Wake Forest University can help provide students with the tools they need to begin the process of entering the field of counseling. Find out more about our comprehensive curriculum and apply today.

Suggested Readings

Why Now Is the Right Time to Pursue Your Master’s in Counseling
Master’s in Counseling vs. Master’s in Psychology What’s the Difference?
What an Online Counseling Degree Can Do for You


Human Services Guide
Psychology Today
American Psychological Association
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics